I have never met Chrishaun “CeCe” Mcdonald personally, but I feel a very strong connection to her. I don’t know CeCe’s back-story and I can never claim a full understanding of what the world looks like from her perspective as a Black, transgender woman. What I can understand is the interconnectedness of her oppressions and mine, our shared humanity.
I heard about CeCe after reading an article in the Star Tribune (http://www.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/123777049.html).
The author has a history of misrepresenting transgender and gender non-conforming folks in their articles. Their representation of CeCe was no different. The article relied heavily on shock value (in the vein of Jerry Springer). It did not identify CeCe as a woman but as a “man becoming a woman”, while implying a degree of criminality and untrustworthiness. It questioned her character. The article represented CeCe in a way that simultaneously implied a reason to suspect her of having an inherent criminality –a stereotype suggesting trans folks are deviant— while separating the violence she has experienced from the violence that other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk experience. In effect, CeCe has been portrayed as guilty, deserving (or at least responsible for the violence she has experienced) and dehumanized as we are told we can’t directly identify with her.
CeCe Mcdonald was attacked on June 5th while walking by the Schooner Tavern on Lake Street. She did not know her attackers. CeCe’s race and her inability to pass as her attackers’ definition of a “woman”, is credited as having been the motivation.
I don’t know whether CeCe is “guilty” or “innocent” and I don’t mean to argue one way or the other. My intention is to make clearer to LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) identified folks that the violence CeCe has experienced from those who assaulted her, and most likely will experience within the criminal legal system, is not different from how the larger LGBTQ communities experience homophobic/heterosexist violence. I empathize with the family of Dean Schmitz, as this has without a doubt been a deep loss for them. However, I cannot say that I am upset that Dean Schmitz is no longer with us as I too have been verbally and physically assaulted by folks quite like him, folks who take it upon themselves to make this world feel safe for some while feeling incredibly dangerous for others. That Dean Schmitz is no longer here means that there is one less person in this world who would inflict harm on those I love and myself.
I am a cisgender male. This means I was biologically assigned as male since birth, and personally identify as a male. To make clearer, how I identify myself and how the larger society identifies me has never been in conflict. Because my knowledge of gender, sexuality, and race is largely informed by my identities as a gay/queer identified white male, my writing is largely intended –though not exclusive too— the experiences of a similar to myself.
What motivates me to write about CeCe is this: At present, the single largest issue for Minnesotan lesbian and gay communities (which is arguably not so prominent an issue within bisexual and transgender communities) is gay marriage. Looming on the horizon is the possibility of a statewide amendment that would define marriage as specifically between a man and a woman. I am not a proponent of marriage. Frankly, I don’t believe marriage can ever fully account for how people live and love together. Romantic interests should not be conflated with our needs to emotionally and economically support each other.
While I am not a proponent of marriage, I am a strong opponent of blatant heterosexism and the abuse of privilege and power by dominant communities and their elected officials. Unable to define who and how we love is to have a part of our humanity taken from us. This is self-determination, this is companionship, and for many of us this could mean access to numerous privileges most easily accessed by heterosexual and heteronormative couplings has been denied. A legal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman defines all relationships that differ from this model as being an unnatural mimicry, which is essentially (at least by legal definitions) non-existent. We can create our own communities, who we love and how, but we cannot have them read as legitimate since at the core of Marriage is reproduction and many of us are incapable of doing this in a fashion defined as “natural”.
Gay marriage will not help CeCe. Gay marriage will not stop the physical and verbal violence of homophobia that many of us experience every day. This is because the homophobic violence many of us experience is not the result of our relationship status (real or imagined). Rather, it is because of the interpretation AND the conflation of our sexuality and gender identities.
How does anyone know the sexuality of another person based on visual and auditory cues? Physical characteristics, mannerisms, how the person carries their body, secondary sex characteristics, dress, class, race etc. Those who deviate most from what is considered to be the “norm” experience disproportionately higher rates of verbal and physical violence. By this I mean to say that masculine and male identified gay, bi and queer men, and feminine and female identified lesbian/dyke, bi and queer women are less likely to experience violence than their gender-conforming counterparts. This is because of the perception that gender and sexuality are so closely related that the two have effectively become conflated. That many gay/queer men identify themselves as “straight acting” when what they actually mean to say is they identify as “masculine” is completely related to this. While transphobic and homophobic violence are different in many ways, I strongly believe they originate from a similar place, as the trans folks who experience the highest levels of violence are those who do not pass as the gender they identify as.
CeCe Mcdonald has had her gender identity used against her by the Star Tribune. I emphasize this because the media greatly impacts how we define events, how we understand people, how we understand history itself. While it is too late to rewrite the articles in the Star Tribune, it isn’t too late to hold the author(s) accountable for exasperating an already complicated situation. CeCe’s situation is not an isolated incident. Many LGBT persons (especially those who are working class and people of color) find themselves in increasingly vulnerable positions as they disproportionately experience homophobia and transphobia by the larger society and additionally by the police and the criminal legal system.
It is also not too late for us to demand that CeCe receive a fair trial. To repeat, I’m unsure as to whether or not CeCe is “guilty” or “innocent” of killing a person. To me this is irrelevant since I can’t “know” her guilt or innocence. However, what I can understand is the attacks on CeCe that preceded the death of Dean Schmitz. What is important to me, and I believe should be important to all folks that are LGBTQ identified persons, is that CeCe’s gender identity, her race, and her sexuality are NOT being placed on trial. That CeCe is a transgender woman is not relevant to her character. That CeCe is a transgender woman IS relevant to how she came to be verbally and physically accosted.
In recent years, LGBTQ identified folks have had their gender identities and sexualities used against them by the criminal legal system as a means of increasing their sentences (I STRONGLY recommend reading the book Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT in the United States as it extensively documents the historical specificities that have led to the current use of sexuality and gender identity as evidence for ones criminality within court cases).
In other words, what happened to CeCe could easily happen to any of us. Any LGBT person in the Twin Cities could be physically and verbally assaulted. We know this because it happens ALL the time. What makes CeCe’s situation unique is that her class and her race have made her increasingly vulnerable, as she doesn’t have access to finances to bail/bond and legal fees. That CeCe is a Black, working-class, transgender woman has not worked in her favor for demonstrating that she could very well have been acting in self defense (any questions about that should be pretty easily disputable based on the Star Tribune’s articles).
Marriage is important. Having the ability to identify and to create our own relationships and to have them recognized as legitimate is important. What is also important is that we recognize that whether gay marriage is to become legal in Minnesota will not change CeCe’s experiences. Nor will it change how many white and affluent LGBT persons experience homophobic and transphobic violence. When we are married, we still will not be able to hold our partner’s hand in the street without first thinking through whether it feels safe. Open displays of affection are conducted with far greater intention within LGBT communities for this reason. Since a large portion of society still disapproves of LGBT folks we cannot assume that legal legitimization alone will ever be enough for ANY of us. The issues that affect all of us most intimately are inexplicably linked. We can never have a LGBT Community. Our identities as informed by race, class, sexuality, gender identity, religion/spiritual beliefs, geographic position, abilities and education are FAR too numerous. We can however build communities of people that recognize the need for mutual support to actualize the full humanity of all of us. Marriage is not an endpoint for us to reach as LGBTQ persons, it is merely supplemental to all the other needs we have as human beings.